From Selfie to Health Care, How The Press Traded In Policy For Pointlessness In 2013

First things first.

Here is a video from the memorial service that was held last week in South Africa to honor anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela. While watching the video, keep in mind the controversy that erupted in the media when President Obama was part of a selfie picture at the event. Some media commentators were furious because it was such a undignified thing to do at a somber “funeral”:

Here's how South Africans experienced the same memorial.

USA Today described the event, which was not a funeral, as a “raucous and festive send-off” that at times resembled a “soccer match,” one where attendees “stomped until the bleachers shook.” In fact, they “chanted and sang so loudly an official begged the crowd to quiet down.”

So no, President Obama, Danish Prime Minister, Helle Thorning Schmidt and British Prime Minister David Cameron were never in danger of puncturing the memorial mood by using a few fleeting seconds to playfully snap a photo of themselves.

Nonetheless, the New York Daily News, among others, pounced. Following the right-wing media's misinformation lead, the Daily News mocked Obama for posing at a “funeral,” while the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza described Obama as “acting like a bored kid at a school assembly during a funeral for a world leader.” And a National Public Radio headline announced “President Obama Took A Funeral Selfie.”

Of course, Obama didn't attend Mandela's funeral. But it sounded better to pretend he did, so lots of journalists did just that. 

The story also sounded better by pretending images of First Lady Michelle Obama that day revealed the makings of a husband/wife spat, as journalists went full-on Zapruder on a couple of harmless snapshots and eagerly divined a soap opera storyline to the day, one that starred Michelle Obama as the "angry black woman" casting a nasty stare at the Danish prime minister.

Yes, the media simultaneously attacked Barack Obama for being too gleeful at the memorial and attacked Michelle Obama for not being gleeful enough. Talk about a lose-lose. And yes, this from the same press corps that bemoans the fact presidents aren't more spontaneous and unscripted.  

Keep in mind, the mindless coverage revolved entirely around false premises; Obama was being disrespectful at a “funeral,” and Michelle Obama was royally peeved at her husband's behavior. False and false: Here's a photo of Michelle sharing a light moment with the Danish prime minister that day.

To produce journalism and commentary this vapid and pointless takes work. It doesn't just happen. You have to play dumb about a whole range of issues in order to join in the Beltway fun. Coming at the end of the year, the selfie charade represented a sad encapsulation of the Beltway media's shortcomings; of its painfully unserious pursuits.

What is especially maddening is it highlighted that while the press becomes increasingly fascinated with gotcha events and treats them that as news, it's failing in its primary duty to produce reliable reporting about pressing public policy issues. Specifically, the selfie nonsense played out against the backdrop of the Beltway press corps' that bungled coverage of health care reform.

Just look at all the bogus Obamacare “horror stories” the press has peddled over the last two months, detailing examples of consumers facing daunting increases in health care costs and blaming Obama. (It's a storyline Republicans love.) Yet time and again, those “horror stories” evaporated under closer examination.

Some recent low lights:

*A CNN report announced “Obamacare Under Fire” and detailed how Jessica Sanford, who Obama had personally hailed last month as an Obamacare beneficiary, was actually a disgruntled victim. Politico and Rush Limbaugh piled on, mocking the White House for trumpeting Sanford's success only to discover Obamacare had let her down. (CNN called the story an "embarrassment" for Obama.)

But as Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat detailed while fact-checking the CNN “exclusive,” a Washington state health exchange error had caused the confusion for Sanford about her coverage and in the end she and her son with ADHD qualified for very low-cost health care coverage. “If you can get it for $300 or so a month for two people -- especially with a pre-existing condition -- that's no debacle, folks. It's a deal,” wrote Westneat.

* NBC Nightly News profiled another so-called Obamacare “sticker shock” victim and detailed how Deborah Cavallaro's monthly premium would go up from $293 to $484. But American Prospect's Paul Waldman did some online shopping and found a plan that Cavallaro qualified for and cost $258 per-month, $35 less than her plan that's being canceled.

*CNN's Drew Griffin, defending a “horror story” piece he reported on consumer disappointment with Obamacare, admitted that he didn't even bother looking for any success stories. Instead, as host Anderson Cooper explained, because Obama had given a speech extolling the benefits of  Obamacare, it was CNN's and Griffin's job to “counter against that.”

So yes, the contrast between an immature press corps gorging on the bogus selfie non-story while it continues to mangle health care reporting represents a sad chapter to close out the year.  

For the record, there's nothing wrong with ribbing Obama or, on occasion I suppose, having some light fun at the expense of his wife. Although to be honest, I can't think of a single news cycle during President Bush's eight-year term that revolved around mocking First Lady Laura Bush.

But the Mandela memorial photo hoax went far beyond enjoying an innocent laugh at the Obama's. The coverage, both in terms of the amount and the condescending, look-at-these-dopes tone, was completely disrespectful. (ABC News: “What do President Obama and a bunch of teenagers have in common?”)

And of course, none of it was news. But that didn't stop a parade of “news” stories:

*President Obama Takes Selfie With World Leaders [Politico]

*President Obama Poses for Selfie at Nelson Mandela's Memorial Service [ABC News]

*Obama, Two Other World Leaders Snapped a Three-Way Selfie in South Africa Today [Slate]

*President Obama Snaps A Selfie at Mandela's Memorial Service  [Washington Post]

*Obama Takes “Selfie” With World Leaders At Mandela Memorial Service  [CBS News]

Politico, Washington Post, ABC News, and Slate are supposed to be serious news operations. But read their selfie reports and try to figure out what the news value there was in the President of the United States having his photo taken in public. I still can't find an answer based on any those dispatches. The unspoken premise for virtually all the reports was, people (i.e. Obama critics) are in a frenzy about this on Twitter, therefore it must be “news.” (Because using Twitter as your assignment desk is always a good idea, right?)

The whole episode was an embarrassment. Not for the Obamas but for the dishonest, “gotcha” press members who glommed onto a handful of still images from raucous four-hour ceremony and helped spin them into a controversy.  

For a press corps that routinely bungles important stories, like the roll out of health care reform, the selfie coverage captured something very disturbing about the news media in 2013.